Parselelo Kantai's You Wreck Her was shortlisted for the 10th Caine Prize for African Writing in 2009. The story appeared in Issue 2 of St. Petersburg Review.
Parselelo's You Wreck Her covers a lot of issues in a few pages, from human trafficking to prostitution and fraud. Right from the beginning the reader is confronted with a sleazy sexual encounter between our character who is a malaya (prostitute) and an mzungu (light-skin tourist).
You do not know how far you have fallen down in this world until you see yourself crawling up a karao's face on a Friday night. You are slobbering and gagging over your short-time, ignoring the after-taste of condom coming into your nostrils from the back of your throat, like Goort's coffee bubbling in the machine on a Sunday morning a long time ago. You lather and stroke. Your head bobs like a bar of soap in bathwater. You can feel he is getting close. There is a commotion far away, beyond the squeak of rubber screaming in your ears, and your short-time is fumbling around you like he lost something important in your pubic hair. He finds your breast. He is clutching you like a handbag thief on Moi Avenue. His thing grows larger in your mouth, then trembles and the thin in your mouth grows soft and your jaws are aching and there is a tap on the window. And right there, on the uniformed policeman's face you see yourself.
This imagistic scene sets the tone and landscape of what is to be a story of hope and hopelessness, of exploitation and reverse-exploitation. Our nameless character referred to throughout the story only as 'you' - and here the reader could insert himself or herself or imagine the description of our protagonist who is said to be
too tall, too skinny and too dark,
had left home after the death of her mother and sexual molestation by her father. Inserting herself into Kenya's night-life, the protagonist joined a growing number of malayas, not only from Kenya but also from Rwanda, Sudan, Congo and from far off countries like Benin, in the hope of being spotted by an mzungu, entering into his life and being carried away to Europe. This is every malaya's dream. However, due to her tallness, skinniness and darkness, the protagonist is almost at the last rank of the ladder. Attracting only the sad customers with gasoline-leaking cars who rant and ramble about their sadness.
Then she met Goort at a pub. Goort was the mzungu she had been looking for, for Goort - a war photographer and an arranger of 'dramas' - bought her new clothes and was willing to give her a new identity. Except that this new identity would require a lot of fabrication and genealogical engineering. Promising to make her a model - like Alek Wek - and take her to Europe, the protagonist agreed. She was to
remember that you are a child soldier from Sudan whom I discovered resting under a tree in Yei County, near the border and not having eaten in three days. He said you have to remember that. Also do not forget that your mother was raped by soldiers and got pregnant with you only to die in a hail of bullets at childbirth. He said drama was what would make the world love you, such a beautiful creature rescued from such ugliness.
And that was how our protagonist found her way into Europe as a star with no education: her pictures covering several magazines. Things however turned on its head when Goort brought in another girl, this time from Angola, because that is where the drama was now, not Sudan. This new girl took her position and soon the protagonist was back home, and together with the karao (police), ripping off mzungus.
Parselelo panders not to any side of the divide: malaya or mzungu. This is strengthened by his use of an unnamed character, which created some form of detachment to the character. Yet, a named and relatable character would have increased the impact of his delivery. As an investigative journalist, Parselelo Kantai might have done a lot of research in this subject matter to deliver it as he did. He showed how people get on the street and remain on the street and the exploitation that goes on by people who pretend to offer help only to rip, exploit and degrade them further. Most of these exploiters are drawn by the helplessness, ignorance and expectations of these penury street girls. Yet, in the end these girls become something else. No one would enter this business and be the same. The initial shyness is the first to go, at least facially - though deep down they aspire to be something better than what they currently are. The erased shyness, timorousness and timidity is replaced by another superficial trait: temerity, the only requirement of this trade.
Parselelo Kantai's short story is worth the read and good enough to be, not only on the shortlist, but to win.
Brief Bio: Parselelo Kantai has a flair for sounding the alarm. Formerly the editor of the East African environmental quarterly Ecoforum, Kantai wrote and oversaw the publication of "A Deal in the Mara," which shed light on the corruption in the management of the Maasai Mara. Kantai, one of Kenya’s most pointed investigative reporters, has contributed to a series of East African magazines and dailies and is currently working on a novel set during the 1970s Kenyatta years. In 2004, Kantai was runner-up for the Caine Prize for African Writing for his fiction piece ”Comrade Lemma and the Black Jerusalem Boys Band.” (Source)
ImageNations Rating: 5.0/6.0
Other Caine Prize Shortlist: Icebergs by Alistair Morgan